Catch and Release Trout: Best Practices 1-10-2014

When I started fishing in 1960, we killed every fish we caught. Over a half-century later, even though there are thousand times more anglers, there are more fish and larger trout in Colorado waters.
This is good news. It is caused by a multitude of factors that revolve around preserving the resource. One way, every angler can help preserve the resource is by following state and local regulations with regards to taking fish.
Another way, is to report anglers who are not following the regulations. In Colorado the Department of Wildlife has a number you can call to make these reports: 877-265-6648, 877-COLO-OGT. Put this number on speed dial.
A third way, is to release the fish you are not taking in a manner that will allow them to survive. Over the years we have learned more about what stresses fish and techniques for proper fish handling. This article describes the best practices for handling fish and is used by the Front Range Guide Service to train its guides who in turn train their clients. By the way, anglers today are much smarter about catching and therefore a lot more trout are caught now than in 1960. This catch rate increase is due to an improvement in knowledge, tackle, and technique. Therefore, it makes sense to improve our fish handling techniques.
Catch and Release Technique:


The following procedures do not guarantee fish survival and there is disagreement in the fishing community on specific handling methods. And, each fish caught has its own specific conditions that need to be considered. The science on this subject is useful but incomplete. Debate on specific steps is healthy and welcome.
Note to those anglers who use bait, barbed hooks, and/or treble hooks: If you use this kind of tackle, you cannot release fish and expect them to survive. Therefore, once you catch your limit (four Trout in Colorado), you are done for the day. Whereas, when you use a fly with a single barbless hook, you can fish all day and if the local regulations allow it, you can take some fish home to eat. The amount of fish you can take, if any, is determined by local regulations.
  1. Use single barbless hooks
  2. Keep the fish in the water as much as possible.
  3. Trout have a protective slime. Protect that slime by keeping hands and net wet.
  4. Use a rubber net. Large mesh allows for quicker removal of hooks.
  5. Avoid unnecessarily long landing battles.
  6. Trout gills are particularly susceptible to poison, infection, and puncture. Never allow anything, especially fingers inside the gill plate.
  7. If the hook cannot be retrieved easily, cut the line.
  8. Trout are lot more fragile than warm water or salt-water fish.
  9. Large trout are less resilient than small trout, be extra careful with them.
  10. Adverse conditions such as water temperature greater than 65 degrees, require extra care in handling fish. If it’s above 70 degrees, you probably shouldn’t be fishing and many waters will close during this condition.


Taking Photos (Grip and Grin vs Grip and Kill):
 Fish anatomy, courtesy of Tony Bishop[1]article “Trout Dying to Get Good Photo
  1. Keep the fish in the water as much as possible (considered by nearly everyone the most important fish handling technique.) The fish need only be out of the water for less than 5 seconds for a photo.
  2. Do not “lip” the fish (bass photo), do not put them on the grass, beach, or snow.
  3. Keep the fish (especially the large ones) near the water. If a large fish is dropped it risks bursting its air bladder.
  4. When holding the fish, keep fingers out of gills (see Basics #5.) The join between the tail fin and the body (caudal peduncle) can be held firmly as it all bone.
  5. However the area around the pectoral fins must be cradled … not squeezed (aka, Death Grip), as it can do damage to the heart and/or liver. Note in the fish anatomy picture the red circle around the heart area. Check out further explanation and example photos at the end of this article.


  1. Find some slow moving water to release fish (not as necessary for small fish.)
  2. Start with one hand under the belly and the other on the caudal peduncle.
  3. Face fish into slow current and remove hand from belly. Observe to see if fish is stable (stays upright.)
  4. Move tail from side to side. Fish should swim out of your hand, upright.
  5. Stay with fish until first four steps are accomplished successfully.
  6. If fish goes to bottom and sits, it is not a bad thing, but don’t leave it. Let it recover some more and then gently move the tail. A surviving fish will eventually swim away from you.
  7. In a lake add a back and forth motion to the side to side tail motion.


Hands versus Net:
This issue is up for much debate:
Hands only: The basic idea is that a well-handled fish can be released with less contact and more quickly than with a net. In fact, there are tools that can de-hook the fish with no contact at all.
Using a net: The negative is that the even wet rubber can remove the trout body slime and if the fish is bound it the net, it may not be breathing properly when underwater.
In my experience, I have seen more fish mishandled by hands-only rather than with a net. With large rubber nets, the fish can recover in the net better than in one’s hand.  The angler or guide can control the recovery more easily and more gently by keeping the fish in the net in the water, even when moving the fish to slower water for release. Additionally, having a net allows the photographer to prepare while the fish is safely in the water.
Photos or not:
“The photo of a fish of a lifetime is never worth the life of a fish of lifetime.” — Jay Zimmerman
I like this quote from Jay. It provides a good frame of reference for decision-making. But it doesn’t keep me from taking photos. As a guide and an angler, I know how important those photos are. Like a great wine a great fishing trip resonates long after the actual event. Photos have a way of re-energizing that resonance. Additionally, they make it easier to do catch and release fishing. In the old days we would show off our stringers. Now we show off our photos.


A few years back, Front Range Anglers guided a trip for 7 Kuwati men studying English at University of Colorado.
They all caught fish … some caught a lot. They all had great difficulty understanding the concept of “catch and release.” In fact, the young man in the picture below said to me, “Wallace, you understand that ‘Catch’ and ‘Release’ are opposite words.


He wasn’t allowed to take any fish, but he sent this photo home to his family in Kuwait the next day.
I don’t have any mounted fish on my walls … not yet. If I ever do find that fish of a lifetime and can safely take a picture of it, I will provide the picture and dimensions to the appropriate artist for that wall trophy. In the old days we would just take the fish to the taxidermist who would throw away most of it.
Yes, I’m pro photos, so let’s do it right.
Erin Block has written a great article, “At What Price Glory.”[2] In this article she discusses the current science on fish handling. She explains that taking a fish from the water after a stressful battle interferes with its natural recovery process. She suggests that you exercise heavily and then have your head held under the water for a minute or two in order to understand the stress. I like this extreme suggestion because it precisely explains the problem and the solution. The problem is that fish are often kept out of the water too long, frequently to get that great photo. The solution as an angler or a guide is to prepare for the photo before even catching the fish. If you prepare, the fish should be back in the water within 5 seconds.
Additional photo/fish handling techniques
  1. Have a good camera and know how it works.
  2. Before fishing with client or buddy, go over proper catch and release techniques detailed above. I use a stuffed animal to practice on land.
  3. When the fish is caught, get in the water if you are not already there and stabilize the fish in the net, so it can start its recovery.
  4. Move to the release area, in case the fish is dropped.
  5. Set up camera, angles, positions, etc.
  6. When the photographer is ready the “gripper” wets his hands holds the fish in the net.
  7. The gripper then says, “Ready … 1, 2, 3.”
  8. On 3, the gripper lifts the fish from the water to the pre agreed upon pose. Stay close to the water in case the fish drops.
  9. Photographer takes picture and says, “Got it.”
  10. Fish is back in water in net.
  11. If you follow this procedure, you can take another couple of shots without harming the fish, provided the fish is out of the water less than 5 seconds.
  12. Follow the release procedures above making sure you stay with the fish until it swims away on its own

These are detailed guidelines that should improve your fish handling. However, it won’t make it perfect. We all make mistakes in handling fish. Below are example pictures of good and bad technique with comments.

Front Range Guide and Client doing it right, photo by Westfeldt ©
Despite the cold water and day, Randy and Tom both got in the water from this lake bank. Note, how low Tom keeps the fish to the water and how Randy has the net ready for the fish return.
Oops … author doing it wrong. Photo by Myers ©
Fish do not know they are supposed to cooperate, so often they don’t. In this case, I’m too far away from the water and the fish took a nasty fall.
Gentle grip, net close, bending down close to the water. Photo by Westfeldt ©
If this fish were larger, it would be a good idea to get closer to the water.
 Acck … Photo by Westfeldt ©
Finger in gills, grip too tight, fish too high. And, perhaps, just as important, the guide (yours truly) didn’t correct it. Sometimes smaller fish are harder to handle than larger ones. That’s not an excuse … just something to be aware of.
This fish bandit does it just right. Photo by Westfeldt ©
Heart squeeze … no good. Photo from Bishop article ©
With larger fish it is important cradle the front in order not to squeeze heart and liver. Sometimes this is harder to do because the weight of a large trout.
Nicely done, Photo from Bishop article ©
Like all of fly-fishing this is a process of constant learning. Although I have been guiding for 8 years and practicing catch and release for a lot longer, I learn new and improved fish handling techniques every season. This article is a contribution to a discussion that should be on going.
Tight lines,
Wallace Westfeldt






[1] From Bishop article “Trout Dying to Get Good Photo” ©, http://www.bishfish.co.nz/articles/fresh/grip-and-kill.htm